After Laura Dickinson was found dead in her Eastern Michigan University dorm room, school officials lied, saying nothing untoward had happened.
YPSILANTI, Mich. — As most students at Eastern Michigan University were heading home for the holidays in December, the school put out a news release announcing that student Laura Dickinson had passed away unexpectedly in her dorm room.
There was no foul play, the school said. Staff members assured students there was no reason to worry about safety. The campus fell into mourning, with candlelight vigils for Dickinson, 22, a member of the school’s crew team.
Neither students nor her parents knew investigators had found a grisly scene in room 518 of Hill Hall.
Dickinson’s body was lying on the carpeted floor. She was naked from the waist down. A pillow covered her head, and traces of semen were found on her leg.
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For 10 weeks, neither her family nor fellow students knew state and campus police were investigating several suspects.
On Feb. 23, Orange Amir Taylor III, 20, a fellow Eastern Michigan student, was arrested. Only then did the university acknowledge the truth: Dickinson had been raped and killed. Her killer took her keys and locked the dorm-room door when he left.
The Jeanne Clery Act
The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act takes its name from Jeanne Clery, 19, who in 1986 was raped and slain in her residence-hall room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
The law was enacted by Congress in 1990 and amended in 1992, 1998 and 2000.
The law requires institutions of higher learning to disclose campus security information, including crime statistics for the campus and surrounding areas. It also mandates that universities publicize crimes on campus and warn students about threats to their safety.
Because the law is tied to participation in federal student-financial-aid programs, it applies to most institutions of higher education, public and private. It is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education.
Schools that fail to comply with the law can be fined by the Department of Education for up to $27,500 per violation, or the department can suspend the school from participating in federal student-aid programs.
Seattle Times news services, Security on Campus
The school’s secretiveness has left students and residents in Ypsilanti, a southwest Detroit suburb of about 22,000, shaken and outraged. For many, the bucolic Eastern Michigan campus had been violated.
The school “lied to us,” said Laura’s father, Bob Dickinson. “They let us bury her thinking that a healthy 22-year-old girl died by some freak accident.”
Protecting an image?
School officials will not say why they remained silent. But parents and the community think administrators endangered students in an effort to protect the university’s image.
An independent investigation initiated by the school’s board of regents agrees. In a report released this month, investigators with a Detroit law firm detailed how school officials violated the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about campus crimes and warn students of threats to their safety.
The report and court documents show that Eastern Michigan campus police either suspected or believed all along that the death was a homicide.
Some university administration officials did not know there was a criminal investigation and unknowingly passed along misinformation, according to the report. Others made a conscious decision to not warn the public or tell the family.
University President John Fallon said he was misled by staff and was unaware Dickinson’s death was a homicide. Fallon repeatedly told the public and local media that university officials did not suspect a crime.
Fallon did not return calls for comment.
James Vick, vice president of student affairs who oversees the school’s housing and campus-police departments, told the Dickinson family no foul play was suspected when relaying news of Laura’s death.
“We probably should have said there are some suspicious circumstances here, and that probably would have ended the problem,” Vick, who has been placed on paid leave, said Tuesday. “Certainly one could armchair-quarterback it, but to say there was a cover-up or some sort of insidious plan there is crazy.”
The report says Vick ordered the shredding of a document from the university Department of Public Safety describing the scene in Dickinson’s room.
Vick’s attorney, Thomas Manchester, said Vick did not order the shredding. He said his client has been made the scapegoat for a systemic lack of departmental communication and policy.
In a June 13 letter to the board of regents, Manchester said Vick, eager to clear his name, has taken a polygraph test, which shows he is telling the truth.
The Department of Education is looking into whether the school violated the 1990 Jeanne Clery Act. Although the department has conducted 70 similar inquiries since October 2003, only three institutions have been fined under the law.
For Bob Dickinson, 51, the search for answers has been exhausting. Behind the counter of the family’s coffee shop in Hastings, he faces the pitying looks from customers as he froths milk and works the espresso machine. Photographs taken by Laura Dickinson while traveling with her boyfriend, Travis Scott, line one wall: the sun rising over a lake in Michigan’s upper peninsula, waves crashing on the Washington coast, a wild horse gazing on the plains in Wyoming.
After Laura Dickinson earned her associate’s degree from Grand Rapids Community College, she decided to get a bachelor’s degree in nutrition.
“We wanted her to stay close. She didn’t want to go too far away,” Bob Dickinson said. “Eastern had a very good nutrition program and was close enough for her to drive home on the weekends.”
In September, the family drove the two hours southeast to Eastern’s campus in Ypsilanti and her new home at Hill Hall, a 10-story brick high-rise.
Bob and her mother, Deb, gave her some last-minute advice before they left: Make lots of friends. Call if you get lonely. Always keep the door locked.
She followed their guidance. She joined the novice crew team, spending her mornings sweating on the water and her evenings hanging out with teammates.
The night Laura Dickinson died, she attended a team Christmas party where teammates swapped “Secret Santa” gifts. It was Dec. 12 — a Tuesday — and finals week.
Video surveillance cameras show she returned to Hill Hall at 11:12 p.m., carrying a stuffed toy inside a red-and-green holiday gift bag.
In her room, she called her boyfriend at Covanta Energy in Grand Rapids, where he worked as an engineer. It was the last time she used her phone.
When she failed to show up for exams, friends and family grew concerned and began calling her cellphone. For two days, there was no answer.
On Friday morning, a custodian, answering a complaint from one of Dickinson’s Hill Hall neighbors, opened the door to room 518 and found her body.
As the school made public statements about Dickinson’s death, school police were interviewing four men as suspects, including Taylor, who told campus police he previously had roamed through dorms to steal electronics.
As the investigation progressed, seminal-fluid samples taken from Dickinson’s body and her bed matched Taylor’s DNA, police said. Surveillance cameras showed Taylor sneaking into Hill Hall early Dec. 13 and leaving 90 minutes later, carrying a gift bag, police said.
Dr. Bader Cassin, the Washtenaw County medical examiner who conducted Dickinson’s autopsy, issued his final report: She likely died of asphyxiation.
Taylor was charged with open murder, larceny, home invasion and two counts of sexual criminal conduct. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in Washtenaw County Jail without bail. He faces trial Oct. 15.
Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics at New York University’s School of Law, said there are legitimate reasons administrators and school police would not comment about details of a case, particularly early in an investigation.
But to lie — and to the parents of the victim — is “an abdication of every responsibility a university administration has,” Gillers said.
In the weeks after Taylor’s arrest, school officials held public meetings to let students air their complaints.
“I was specifically told I was not in danger, that we weren’t in danger, and unless you guys already had a guy in custody, we were in danger,” student Jaclyn Armstrong said in one meeting, according to the school newspaper, The Eastern Echo. “And the fact that he is being charged with criminal sexual assault, not only were our lives in danger, but we were in danger of many other things.”
Washington Post material is included in this report.